Stress, Anxiety, and the Take-Home Exam

“A better essay is what we all want.”

A professor said that to me almost fifteen years ago, and it became the guiding principle of my work as a university instructor and especially as the Knowledge Ambassador for EssayJack.

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EssayJack is founded on the idea that writing anxiety and a lack of proper instruction in essay writing keep students from earning marks that reflect their abilities. Better essays spark richer conversations between instructors and students. They allow for deeper feedback that focuses on content, ideas and analysis. Improved essay writing enhances the educational experience for students and teachers alike.

If a better essay is what we all want, we as university instructors must conceptualise and structure our assignments to facilitate this goal. We can do so by designing all of our assignments, including midterm and final exams, to position students to write the best possible essay.

I do this by giving my students take-home exams. I give them the questions in advance.

My midterms consist of five essay questions distributed one week before the midterm is due in class. Students choose one of these five questions to answer.

It is important, though, to differentiate an essay that is part of a take-home exam from research essays and other written assignments. My take-home exams consist of an essay, but they are not equivalent in purpose or in practice to other essays students are required to write. A take-home exam should mirror the requirements of an in-class exam as closely as possible. Therefore, I only allow students to make use of course materialslectures and assigned readingsin answering the question they choose. Outside research is prohibited. I also allow a much less formal citation format than is acceptable in research essays, as footnotes or endnotes are generally not expected on exams.

The point of the exercise is to test students’ knowledge of course material; having students write the exam at home instead of in class doesn’t change this. 

What about final exams? Many universities have policies requiring final exams to be written in person during a designated exam period. In this case, I still give students five questions in advance. Of these five questions, three appear on the exam. Students choose one to answer. This has the added advantage of incentivising students to review even more course material, as they need to prepare three answers to ensure that at least one of the questions they study will be on the exam.

Why assign take-home exams?

First, final exams are among the most stressful aspects of the university experience for students. In fact, a number of universities are implementing innovative initiatives to help reduce student stress, especially during the exam period. Below are a few programme highlights:

As levels of stress and anxiety rise among students and exam stress is identified as a contributing factor to suicide among teenagers, it behooves educators to craft assignments that reduce stress and better allow students to achieve academic success. Exams are an inherently stressful situation. Take-home exams eliminate much of this pressure while encouraging better essays.

This is the second benefit of take-home exams. Far from lowering expectations, take-home exams serve to increase academic rigour. When students have a week to consider the essay for their midterm or final exam, we can ask more in-depth questions that require more reflection and consideration. We can also expect greater engagement with assigned sources. Asking students to advance and support an argument in an hour or two as an answer to a question they are seeing for the first time often results in essays of low quality. Some students are able to produce a nuanced, well-organised and comprehensive argumentative essay under these conditions. Often, however, students fill exam booklets with either vague rambling or a dense collection of facts they were able to recall under pressure. In-class exams require simpler essay questions and result in more superficial essays that neither represent the students’ best thinking and analysis nor provide the instructor with the kind of wide-ranging responses to course material enabled by take-home exams.


What about the objection that take-home exams coddle students? Shouldn’t we expect students to master the anxiety of exams and write high-quality essays under pressure? 




empty exam room.jpgWriting an essay from memory in two hours in a gym full of other students is not an experience that will be replicated in any academic or professional career that a student pursues after graduating from university. We do not expect historians to write books without their research in front of them, and we do not expect lawyers to write briefs, motions or opening statements without referring to court decisions and legal scholarship. In-class exams create an artificial situation that precludes in-depth questions and responses without preparing students for situations they will encounter in their careers and causing undue stress.

Take-home exams allow instructors to ask better questions and students to write better essays. They benefit both the student and the instructor, as a better essay is what we all want.



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